Polaroid Week: Polo Silk
For more than three decades, Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell has been photographing Black New Orleans, creating a unique body of work that blends elements of portraiture, fashion, performance, and street photography. Polo Silk mobilized the traditional portrait studio, taking it to the streets and clubs of New Orleans and transforming it into an adaptable, on-the-spot method of picture making. In the course of his career, Polo perfected the use of instant-photo technology, making dynamic, one-of-a-kind portraits that capitalized on the vibrant color range and continuous tones that are a hallmark of Fuji and other instant films. Sold on demand to clients who wanted a record of New Orleans specific events like Super Sunday, or to show off their carefully planned outfit on any given Saturday night, Polo’s pictures have become an integral part of how many Black New Orleanians have used photography to represent themselves.
Polo Silk often makes his portraits in front of the colorful airbrushed backdrops painted by his cousin Otis Spears (American, born 1969) that feature hip-hop and bounce music, fashion brands, sports logos, and New Orleans neighborhoods. Together, the consistently conceived new backdrops to keep current, producing a new screen every few weeks. Polo Silk continually took advantage of new developments in film formats, filters, and camera add-ons to satisfy the way his sitters wanted their portraits to look. For instance, in New Orleans the most carefully considers part of a person’s outfit was the shoes, which had to make it into the portrait frame.
When Polaroid introduced its Spectra film – with a wider window – Polo Silk quickly turned the camera on its side for a more vertical room to compose his image and be certain to capture the sitter’s shoes. Placing the portraits in commercially produced decorative frames, Polo Silk layered on even more vibrant color and gave his work a sense of assemblage. In bringing photography out of the studio and directly to the people, Polo made it a truly accessible phenomenon. While traditional portrait photographs were often designed to appear timeless and placeless, Polo’s pictures are absolutely fixed in time, and rooted in New Orleans. Together, Polo and his subjects have created one of the most important visual archives of this time and place, an important set of pictures that highlight Black expression, individuality, and ultimately, a collective community identity. -Brian Piper, Assistant Curator of Photographs, New Orleans Museum of Art
Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art until January 8, 2023. His photographs are also included in Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers, on view until January 8, 2023.
Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell (American, born 1964) began taking photographs as a young man at the Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of New Orleans, LA. In 1987, Terrell joined his friend Melvin Foley’s new venture at Club Adidas, making pictures for young club- goers. Over the next decade, he became a fixture at many of New Orleans’ emerging hip-hop and bounce music venues, building relationships with artists and repeat customers. The photographer also became one of the foremost chroniclers of the city’s famous Second Line and Black Masking Indian cultures. Polo Silk’s work has been published in the Smithsonian Institution Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap. His photography has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Antenna Gallery, The New Orleans Jazz Museum, and currently, the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Follow Polo Silk on Instagram: @polonolaphotography, @nomaphotographs, @neworleansmuseumofart
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